The 10 biggest cichlids

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Mary Bailey runs the rule over her top ten heavyweights in the cichlid division!

Some cichlids are huge and many outsize species make great pets as they respond to their owner and show great interest in what activities are taking place outside their aquarium.

Although they typically occupy a large space in natural waters, they are also quite happy with restricted environments in our homes

The corollary is that a single specimen should never be shut alone in a tank in the fish room. It will get bored without the stimuli of domestic life. Pairs are another matter, tending to be less interested in their owner as they have other things to keep them busy!

Considerations

All the cichlids detailed here must have large tanks where they can turn round comfortably and get exercise. Although in captivity they usually remain smaller than maximum sizes quoted, 122 x 46 x 46cm/48 x 18 x 18" should be the absolute smallest tank for a single specimen of the smaller species; 183 x 46 x 46cm/72 x 18 x 18" for a pair — with upgrades as required, depending on the size of the fish.

Eight out of my ten species are piscivores; the surprise being that it isn’t a full house as it takes a lot of protein to build a big fish, and you need to be big to be an out-and-out piscivore. So, except where indicated, raw fish should form a significant element in diet, along with prawns, shrimps, mussels, earthworms and other robust meaty foods.

Big fish also produce lots of waste, so efficient filtration is important, although this does not mean strong currents are desirable. None of these species live in turbulent water.

So, let's start with the tenth largest, and work our way up...

10. Buccochromis lepturus

The first Malawi and only mouthbrooder to make it into my list! B. lepturus can attain 40cm/16", is a piscivore found throughout Lake Malawi and also in the smaller Lake Malombe.

It hunts over sandy bottoms, but little else is known about its behaviour in the wild. It has not been found breeding on the open sand and in captivity males have dug nests among rocks.

Very little other information on aquarium maintenance is available either, though it has been exported occasionally for the hobby.

Males are very attractive and apparently not particularly aggressive. The water should be hard and alkaline, very pure and well oxygenated.

The breeding behaviour reported suggests a large tank with a decent expanse of open bottom, but some rocks with sand between. I imagine that if the tank is large enough other large Malawi ‘haps’ could share the space.

There were other contenders from Lake Malawi for this tenth place, one being Champsochromis caeruleus, another piscivore, which lost out as it is an elongate pursuit predator while lepturus is deeper-bodied so larger overall. I also had to rule out the ncheni (Rhamphochromis), even though I have held one at least as large, as the identity of the species is a matter of debate.

Most are known mainly from fishermens’ catches and end up in the frying pan rather than being diagnosed in the laboratory.

All these big cichlids are a valuable food in their native lands – and that’s a point worth bearing in mind if finding yourself wondering what to do with that innocent little cichlid you bought that just growed and growed!

9. The Buttie (Tilapia buttikoferi)

Although 30cm/12" is a more normal size, an adult male Buttie can attain 40cm/16" — making it the largest as well as probably the most attractive member of its genus – at least in appearance as its habits leave a lot to be desired.  

It originates from lowland rivers in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where it apparently prefers large rivers with rocky bottoms, a rather atypical scenario for the genus and just like the bad behaviour. In addition it is — again atypically for Tilapia — partially piscivorous and so likely to eat tank mates as well as aquarium plants.

It is a hardy fish not too bothered about water chemistry and, although its natural waters are soft, it has been bred in hard alkaline conditions in the UK.  

The sexes are similar when young, but males are ultimately much larger and more boldly marked. The species is extremely prolific, if the female survives the breeding experience, as males are wife beaters before and after spawning. It is often necessary to use a divider which is removed only during spawning.  

When first imported the Buttie took the hobby by storm because of its looks, but once its behaviour became known its attraction vanished practically overnight. However, like those large, badly-behaved 'Centrals', a single Buttie makes an excellent pet cichlid.

8. 'Cichlasoma' festae

It is thought that cichlids originally colonised Central America from the south, but over the millennia a small number of species have found their way back.

While 'C.' umbriferum (see below) retains a foothold in Panama, 'C.' festae makes it furthest south, into Pacific coastal rivers in Ecuador and northern Peru where it feeds on small fish and aquatic invertebrates such as shrimps that it finds by turning over stones.

It is one of a small group of related species that now live in the narrow strip of lowlands west of the Andes. Males can attain 40cm/16” or so, but such a size is exceptional in captivity.

This is a South American cichlid that does not require very soft, slightly to very acid water — moderately hard and neutral to alkaline suiting it far better.  

Once adult the species is strongly sexually dichromatic, with males being greenish and females orange with black barring, although males take on a similar coloration to females when breeding. Note that the names 'Green festae' and 'Red festae' relate to these differences in colour in one and the same species!  

They start to colour up and mature at 15cm/6". Given their colours they are surprisingly uncommon in the hobby, though there are youngsters if you are prepared to look hard for them.

Singles seem to make for lesser pets than some other large cichlids, so these fish are better kept in pairs. However, male behaviour can be rather unpredictable.

A compatible pair can be devoted, but males can become wife killers like some other large 'Centrals'.

7. Uaru amphiacanthoides

This species being listed is another surprise, but it really can grow to 45cm/18" and I’ve seen one! For a herbivore — except when very small — to attain this size is remarkable, but Uaru are like Pacu, also giant vegetarians, in that they don’t feed on algae but consume higher plants with gusto.

I once caught my ex feeding mine segments of orange, which they seemed to enjoy, though I was concerned about the effects of the juice on water conditions! They do well on duckweed and vegetarian pellets and enjoy earthworms, though they have no interest in prawns and the like and small fish are generally quite safe.

I have accidentally included Zebra danios in a net of duckweed and found them swimming happily around the Uaru, even when the duckweed had gone. Uaru also need bogwood to gnaw on and an efficient filter to clear up the resulting excrement!

Uaru require soft, slightly to moderately acid water. They are totally unsexable, but as they like to live in a group it is no bad thing to start with six youngsters. Never keep an adult alone as it must at least be able to see other Uaru or will stop eating. A rise of several degrees in temperature, from 27 to 29°F/80 to 85°F, seems to trigger breeding. The fry glance on the parents as in Discus and initially require lots of meaty foods, otherwise they will eat bits of each other.

Much as I love Uaru, they are rather thick and lack the pet character of the big predators.

6. Bay snook (Petenia splendida)

Described from Lake Peten (hence Petenia), this guapote is also found in rivers and other lakes in Belize, Guatemala and southern Mexico, including the Yucatan. It occurs in both a normal (blue-green with dark vertical bars) and an orange form, with the latter restricted to Lake Peten as far as is known. It is a target for anglers.  

It is very hardy, sometimes penetrating into brackish water in river estuaries. Its preferred habitat, however, is slow moving or still, hard alkaline waters with marginal and floating vegetation where it can swim in open water, but with cover above.

It is rather scarce in the hobby and I have seen only the orange form. The most striking feature is its long and angular lower jaw that allows it to open wide and extend its mouth to suck in prey. However, despite its size it is peaceful, except when guarding its brood.

I have seen half a dozen around 30cm/12” long sharing a tank with other large fish with no sign of aggression and it is reported that pairing takes place without any of the 'fireworks' seen in many cichlids. It needs to be a good size to breed and there is no sexual dichromatism, just size and shape to give a clue — males being larger and slimmer.

The young look rather fragile up to a couple of inches and even at 8-19cm/3-4" are easily bullied. They are sociable with their own kind and like to swim in a pack. This probably reflects their behaviour in nature and may explain why they are so peaceful.

5. Jaguar cichlid (Parachromis managuensis)

The Jaguar can grow as large as 50cm/20", even 60cm/24" according to some authorities. Luckily they usually remain smaller in the aquarium and breed readily at half their reputed maximum.  

This piscivore comes from the Nicaraguan lakes where it helps keep numbers of Convicts and nematopus within bounds, but is also found in lowland rivers across much of Central America. Its precise natural range is unknown as it has been introduced as a food fish in some waters. Prey preference is small fish that can be consumed at one gulp.

This species requires hard, alkaline water and  large decor.  Youngsters up to around 15cm/6" are difficult to sex, but adults exhibit dichromatism and males are larger. If starting with six juveniles you should end up with a pair, but don’t expect to learn what happened to the other four which will disappear along the way. Pairs formed this way generally remain happily married for a very long time, sometimes forever, and will breed readily without needing any special requirements.

4. 'Cichlasoma' umbriferum

This cichlid, whose generic placement is thought to be related to Caquetaia and sometimes assigned to that genus, is rather rare, so not much information is available. Its rarity may reflect not only its size but also distribution in an area not generally collected for the hobby. It has a foothold in both Central and South America, being found in southern Panama and northern Colombia.  

It appears to sometimes venture into brackish water and stomach contents suggest a natural diet of decapod crustaceans — shrimps and land crabs!

Like most large cichlids it is hardy as regards water chemistry, but this should be on the alkaline side of neutral.

It is an open brooder, with a preference for vertical rock faces as spawning sites, and is said to be mature at only 12-15 cm/5-6”. Males are larger than females and the latter turn from blue-green to golden when breeding. They sound well worth trying if you have a large tank and stocks are available.

3. Wolf cichlid (Parachromis dovii)

Also known as Dow’s cichlid, this measures 75cm/30" in males, 60cm/24" in females and is the largest of the guapotes — the local name for large predatory cichlids. It will also make an excellent pet.

Although found in rivers throughout much of Central America, its stronghold are the Nicaraguan lakes where it forms part of a cichlid species flock with some interesting interrelationships.  

As a piscivore, it plays an important role in preventing the smaller members of the species flock — the Convict cichlid (Amititlania nigrofasciata) and Hypsophrys (formerly Neetroplus) nematopus — from converting the lakes into sardine-tin analogues with wall to wall small cichlids! Meanwhile Convicts and nematopus protect their species’ interests by in turn predating on dovii fry. The result is an ecological system in perfect balance.

Aquarium stocks of dovii are almost exclusively tank bred, but it is unusual to see it available, perhaps because aquarists are put off by size and shops are reluctant to stock youngsters. Young ones are silvery jobs and quite unsexable, but later there is clear sexual dichromatism — females yellow with black markings, males mainly blue-green — as well as size differences.  

The best way to get a pair is to start with half a dozen youngsters, unless you come across a second-hand adult pair. They start to breed at 30cm/12" plus, so it is quite feasible without needing a swimming pool of a tank.

Like most 'Centrals' this species requires hard, alkaline water and  large decor. Although it doesn’t eat plants, they are unlikely to survive this cichlid’s enthusiastic digging.

2. Peacock bass (Cichla ocellaris and company)

Until recently there was confusion over how many Cichla species were valid and with the latest scientific wisdom being that there are actually a host of taxa, it is impossible to say which or how many of the species attain(s) the 75cm/30" traditionally claimed for Cichla ocellaris.

Cichla are pursuit predators, hence their streamlined shape. Unusually for South American cichlids adult Cichla can be found in the open water of the large rivers and lakes of Amazonia, as they are too large for all but the most ambitious otter or caiman to tackle. However, younger ones up to 30cm/12" plus are pack animals that stick to the bank zones for mutual shelter.

For this reason the young sometimes available are best kept in a group in a large tank with bogwood décor and this offers the best chance of getting a pair of these unsexable predators.

There have been rumours of captive breeding at a size not much in excess of 40cm/15", but I have yet to find confirmation. Nor have I heard of anyone having a 'pet Cichla'. Then they are rare in the hobby and always wild-caught.

The water in the natural habitat is very soft and slightly to very acid, but these cichlids have been introduced in the Caribbean and Florida as food fish and for angling, and have established themselves readily in harder, more alkaline, even brackish water.

1. Boulengerochromis microlepis

This, at 90cm/36" TL in males and 75cm/30" in females, is the world’s largest cichlid, though anglers have made claims for Cichla that size or larger. It is endemic to Lake Tanganyika where it lives over wide expanses of sand with scattered rocks and beds of plants.

It breeds only once, when full-grown, putting its entire life energy into one clutch of eggs numbering thousands, laid on a stone or stones amid the sand. Because there is little or no cover, survival of any young depends on the parents keeping away a host of small cichlids and other fish that congregate to feed on eggs, larvae, and fry.

Imagine a human trying to chase away a swarm of bees and you will have some idea of the problems Boulengerochromis have defending their brood.

To make sure they remain steadfast, Mother Nature has played a bizarre trick. Once these fish have spawned they never feed again and their digestive tracts atrophy. So breeding is all or nothing, no eating the spawn and trying again, no nipping off, leaving the partner to do all the work.

The parents guard the fry for months until they die of starvation, by which time the young are hopefully large enough to stand a chance without any protection.

Young Boulengerochromis occasionally show up in the trade, but while usually fine for people with the necessary space to keep large fish, I feel this is best left in the wild. The likelihood of breeding it in captivity is infinitesimally small and the occasional half-grown singles I’ve seen looked miserable. If you must keep one, they need well-oxygenated, hard alkaline water, like other Tanganyikans.